My Mulligan: The Noise of News

My sons and I were kicking off a round of golf last summer when one of them hit their tee shot on the first hole deep but a bit off line. The ball looked to have ended up outside the rough and in some dense bushes. One of his brothers offered, “Don’t sweat it, hit a breakfast ball.” Not being part of Generation Z, my vocabulary is missing some current terms. I quickly understood that the one brother was offering the other a chance at a do-over. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Whether it’s a Mulligan, a Breakfast Ball, a Do-Over, each offers a different name that represents the same game. That is, a second chance which is welcomed by the casual, recreational golfer. There’s little doubt that kicking off a game of golf with the freedom to fail and try again a time or two is refreshing for us weekend hackers. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could capture this capability in other areas of our lives?

If you’ve made it past the age of thirty, you’ve likely learned a few life lessons along the way. Chances are you haven’t made 100% correct choices at each step. With the benefit of hindsight, are there any decisions you’d like to do over? If you could take a Mulligan, what would it be? We’re bombarded with the idea that we should be living our lives fully working to have “no regrets.” We’re all probably lucky enough to not have lasting regrets like the poor bloke with the tattoo reading “No Ragrats” from the movie We’re the Millers. Nonetheless, are there any areas where you would be happy to have a chance to do things over?

If I had a magic golf ball that granted me a mulligan in life, I’d look forward to reclaiming lost time spent consuming news. Consuming cable news became a deeply ingrained habit for much of my adulthood. I got in the habit of turning on CNN when I got home from work. Even if I was puttering around the house, preparing dinner, or doing something else, the noise of the news brooded in the background. If I was travelling, the first thing I did when I entered my hotel room would be to turn on the TV and tune into a cable news channel of some kind. The same routine would repeat in the morning. Three or four hours a day could easily be spent in proximity to the news. I would also read papers and online sources as they came to be. I convinced myself I had an obligation to be informed. I considered my actions those of a responsible adult trying to understand and be conversant of the issues of the day.

Joe Friday the fictional LA detective from a long gone TV show Dragnet gave us the line, “Just the facts ma’am.” So, too, it was with our news as recently as a generation ago. Most shared similar sources of news for generations. You knew and had access to what your neighbor had access to. We listened to, then watched the same trusted faces night after night delivering the news with calm, straight faces. Peter Mansbridge gave Canadians nightly news from 1988 only retiring in 2017. When we watched the same person night after night we felt like we knew them and we trusted them. We watched a nightly news show for an hour at either supper time or later in the evening. We had little option to overdo our indulgence for information.

With the advent of 24/7 cable news networks and the internet, the flow of information has had to increase to fill this time. The supply of “news” increased dramatically. Unfortunately, the quality moved inversely to the quantity. There simply aren’t enough actual events to cover every minute of every day so the news has morphed from stuff going on to opinions. As the news had to fill the growing void of all day, all night, each day, the anchors lost their influence. Debate shows of talking heads squawking back and forth became a staple of prime time hours. Then the news anchors themselves began to offer editorials on most stories. Now, a news story can be one network replaying a story from another network while breaking it into clips and inserting its own critical take on it. The news is simply recycling other people’s editorial content and picking it apart. This abundance of available news is noisy. It’s hard to make sense of what matters. Are the people contributing to the stories in the news today well versed on the issues? How much time are they given to explore the history and context of an issue before being rushed to the next, hot topic?

News reflects more the chatter of our culture than the facts of the day. An artificial intelligence system has been implemented in the Canadian political space for several years. The AI is known as Polly and staked its place in the landscape when it predicted accurately 100% of provincial election results in Ontario in 2018. Polly was part of Canada’s most recent federal election. The technology casts a wide net over the social media and news consumption of Canadians and projects what issues are top of mind to voters. Polly tracked our attention as it whipsawed wildly from issue to issue in a few short weeks. In a month, the top issue on voters minds changed more often than a teenage boy changes their underwear. At the outset of the campaign, Afghanistan was front and center on the issue map. Within a week, Afghanistan was forgotten and voters had moved on to wondering why an election was needed. Then, this, too, was forgotten and voters moved on to concerns with COVID. Polly shows us that even those citizens presumably concerned enough to be making an effort to be informed are moving from issue to issue very easily. Their minds are being moved by the media based on the stories that are distributed on the day.

Just like we each have an internal voice that can help us or hurt us perform, the noise of news has become this chatter for us collectively. The news we consume (and whether we choose to consume it at all) can either develop or distract. A benefit of the overwhelming availability of news today is that we can curate our own feed. We aren’t at the mercy of the powers that be to spoon feed us. We can pick and choose what we will use. This is a benefit of which to take advantage. Writer, Adlin Sinclair, observed, “You are the embodiment of the information you choose to accept and act upon. To change your circumstances you need to change your thinking and subsequent actions.” Some years ago, I slowly came to the realization that I had lost control of my news consumption. My default to turn on Cable news and scour the internet wasn’t building my knowledge or understanding but was more of a distraction. I was allowing my attention to be led by others. I thought I had the moral high ground when comparing myself to those that were squandering hours playing Suduko or Candy Crush. At least, I was being an informed citizen and paying attention to the issues of the day, I proudly told myself. No, the fact of the matter was that the way I was allowing my attention to be directed was no different than mindlessly consuming social media, Netflix, sports, or other passive forms of distraction. I wasn’t any better at the end of the time. I wasn’t even consciously considering the amount of time being given up. I had abdicated my agency over my attention to outside forces. The Cable channels and internet news sites determined what I was paying attention to, not me.

Shane Parrish of the blog Farnam Street wrote a post “Why You Should Stop Reading News.” Parrish points out a few problems in the news industry today. The internet has made things available to all of us which is great, but it has skewed the economics. News used to come through newspaper, magazine, and cable subscriptions. The online world has blown up traditional publishing frameworks. The internet serves up the latest news in a constant barrage of breaking news. Nothing lasts more than a few hours before the next urgent crisis surfaces at the front of the next news cycle. Parrish notes that news organizations don’t serve viewers but advertisers. Readers aren’t paying the bills. Advertisers are. Advertisers want eyeballs and clicks. In Don’t Burn This Book, former comedian and now political commentator, Dave Rubin, writes, “News is a business like any other. Although we’d like to think that the business it’s in is to inform and enlighten, we should always remember that it’s really in the business of keeping our eyes on the TV or our fingers clicking.”

This is achieved through amping up the urgency and alarmist nature of content. It’s less to inform and more to inflame. The journalism trope “if it bleeds, it leads” helps us see who the media is trying to serve. They’re trying to poke and provoke in order to attract attention. They are no longer serving information but promoting confrontation. They play to our bias to pay attention to negative news. A study done in 2020 by the National Bureau of Economic Research found this problem to be especially bad in US media. Their research found that over 90% of news stories from US outlets were negative in tone during 2020. This contrasted with around 55% negatively biased stories from non-US news sources. The steady stream of negative news even prompted America’s CDC to issue an advisory in January 2021 suggesting “Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories.” It’s exhausting and debilitating to have our alarm bells rung all the time.

Parrish writes, “Most of what you read online today is pointless. It’s not important to living a good life. It’s not going to help you make better decisions. It’s not going to help you understand the world. It’s not dense with information. It’s not going to help you develop deep and meaningful connections with the people around you.” Ryan Holiday wrote a great article in early 2018 titled, Seriously, You—Ok, We—Need to Stop Watching the News. Holiday had allowed himself to become a news junkie and slave to every notification for breaking news coming through on his phone. He came to his senses when he was paying attention to weather news related to an approaching hurricane in Florida. Just weeks prior, a hurricane had came through the part of Texas where he lives and there were some clean up projects requiring his attention at home. However, instead of cleaning up his mess, his attention was caught in the latest breaking news cycle of hurricane updates approaching Florida. Holiday had his “aha moment” realizing it made no sense to be paying attention to something over which he would not be impacted while ignoring things he needed to do.

From there Holiday changed his relationship with consuming news to take control of his attention. He’s removed apps, turned off notifications, and unsubscribed to all sorts of things. Parrish reminds us, “Your attention is valuable. In fact, your attention is so valuable, it might be the most important thing you have. If you know it’s valuable, why would you consume it on something that is irrelevant tomorrow?” Oliver Burkeman in his book Four Thousand Weeks points out that, “it is not an exaggeration to say that if you pay attention to something you do not value—you are paying with your life.”

Holiday offers an explanation suggesting that media organizations are savvy enough to recognize that much of our individual identity is tied up in the news we consume as it serves to signal that we’re informed, intelligence, and engaged. Comedian Aziz Ansari told the world that he had stopped reading news and was hit with backlash from the folk that were considering that a weakness. Bragging about being uninformed? Boasting about not knowing what the issue of the day is? This is awful, squawked the critics. Holiday quotes Ansari’s response, “I’m not choosing ignorance, I’m choosing to not watch wrestling.” Ansari realized he was tired of being a pawn in a publisher’s game and wanted to control his inputs to further his own development.

The biggest concern with news and other distractions is that we’re allowing our attention to be led by others. We’re abdicating responsibility for our own decisions and direction. We’re like the kid in the school yard during a snowball fight fixating our stare on the lobbed ball arcing high above us while the nefarious sniper is sending a separate stinger directly at us. Our distraction is keeping our eyes off the snowball that really matters. We’ve allowed someone else to decide where we’re spending our time instead of ensuring we’re in control of the most important thing we can control, which is ourselves. Even a hundred years ago, Aleister Crowley observed, “To read a newspaper is to refrain from reading something worthwhile…. The first discipline of education must therefore be to refuse resolutely to feed the mind with canned chatter.” Tune out so you can choose how, when, and whether to tune in. Control your inputs. Don’t blindly accept the firehose of inflamed information spewed forth.

Instead of being used by the news, we can take charge of our attention and direct it to where we can move the needle on what matters for us. To make progress, we need to have a direction then delete distractions. Removing many inputs leaves us with less distraction. News is noise that subtracts from our success signal. We can’t make progress on what matters while being dragged down by the noise of news. Shawn Achor writes in Before Happiness, “To find the signal of success, we need to first learn to differentiate signal from noise… Every percentage point of noise we decrease increases the strength of the signal and raises the limits of our potential.” Turn off notifications. Reduce the reflex to click on the next story. Pick your time to peruse trusted news sources after you’ve done the things that are most important to making progress. Nixing news is something that I’ve found helpful and wish I had done sooner. Whether it is news or some other kind of distraction, what is something that is draining your attention that you could consider trying to scale back? Is there somewhere you’ve been spending time that in hindsight you’d do differently? What time could you get back that could be used on things that are more relaxing, constructive, and fulfilling? What would you do with an additional five, ten, or even twenty hours in your week? Instead of chasing a new habit to develop, is there something you can consider cutting back or eliminating?